Thursday, August 06, 2009

Varner Takes Manhattan

Classic VarnerThis may surprise you, but I don't normally make a habit of watching Regis and Kelly. That said, I'll damn sure be tuning in this Friday morning when my old pal Jeff Varner fills in for the Reege. You remember Varner - former Survivor contestant turned local newscaster. When he first came to El Ocho, I was among many skeptical staffers who wondered what kind of vibe this showbiz joker would bring with him. What I didn't know then is that Jeff held a journalism degree from UNC and what he lacked in local TV chops he more than made up for with charisma, piss and energy. Not that he was EVER easy. Varner's brash, unapologetic and temperamentally incapable of backing down from a fight. These traits - along with his popularity among viewers - didn't always endear him to colleagues and competitors - but I found myself liking him immensely. Together we stormed more than a few food courts, wandered up a widow's porch or two and crashed a Sex Offender's cell block that resulted in one my favorite pieces of the past five years.

These days, Jeff is main anchoring in of all places, Kalamazoo. With his indefatigable laugh, Southern drawl and pesky habit of saying EXACTLY what's on his mind, I can only imagine the impression he's left with Michigan viewers. Apparently they think enough of him to vote him a top spot on Regis and Kelly's From Local to Live Co-Host for a Day Search"Contest. Thus, Jeff will soon 'assume the stool' on Friday, interviewing Susan Lucci, American Idol David Cook and some dude touting the virtues of Texas barbecue. I, however, will tune in for the crosstalk, for the Varner I know doesn't believe in biting his tongue. When I spoke with him last night, Jeff was excited, grateful and not the least bit intimated about filling Regis' tasseled loafers. I believe it, for despite his trademark histrionics, dude ain't skeered to mix it up. Remember, he engineered Australia Outback's infamous chicken argument (that's him at 0:41, slinking away from the fray he helped spark). Chances are, there won't be any fowl to slaughter on the Regis and Kelly set, but with Varner in full flower, there's no guarantee a feather or two won't fly. I just hope he'll follow the three words of advice I gave him...

"Don't go viral."

Industrial Snuff Film

Rarely has one industry's tipping point been so crystallized as in the above time capsule. In the 1983 documentary clip, Consultant in Chief Frank Magid and his minions descend on a certain station and do their best to spruce up the news. Though this particular instance was in MY neck of the woods, similar scenes have played out across the fruited plain since affiliate owners first began paying strangers for out of town advice. Perhaps it was the advent of videotape that convinced station owners they had to rethink all they knew. No longer did news photogs shoot with film; what had been a laborious processing lag evaporated almost overnight. Now field crews could turn their footage around on a dime, edit in the field and report LIVE(!) from the scene of the train wreck, bake sale or apartment fire. Whatever the underlying cause, focus groups and think tanks rose to the fore, convincing local broadcasters they had to all be the same if they were to to be taken seriously by the citizenry. I supposed it seemed like a good idea at the time...

In a way, I feel for the folks tasked with jazzing up the broadcasts. To them, those regional reports must have seemed awfully plodding, chock full of hokum and embarrassingly sincere. No matter that viewers cherished these touchstones or recognized themselves in the accents of their hometown narrators. No, what these yokels needed was a bit of big city branding. So they jacked up the pace, colored the lights and rubbed away the local soul of your neighborhood newscast. Soon dispatches from Newark resembled those in Nevada, toothy readers glimmered in shimmering split screens and the self-serving live shot was born. Shortly after, the human element was re-tooled as well. Main male anchors had to look like Fortune 500 executives, their invariably perky partners made to resemble their slightly sexy second wives. Before anyone could think to protest, local newscasts lost all their hometown flavor. No matter where you traveled, the six o clock dispatch was just another report. from the United States of Generica

Sure, the slows got slicker. But along with that sheen came acres of empty reflection. Not sure if the new reporter knows how the justice system works? Who cares, have you seen the way she uses her eyebrows? Don't know what that thumping sound is? It's just Edward R. Murrow spinning in his grave. Crank up the news open theme music and you can barely hear it. While you're at it, turn over to The Deuce, would ya? They've got a new logo I really trust. Okay, I'm being facetious. But it's hard not to be glib when I look back at 'the hinge' - that point in time when luster trumped integrity. Don't get me wrong, a little window dressing doesn't hurt. I mean, look at my wife; I appreciate pretty people! But when sheer artifice is the coin of the realm, you end up with second-rate thespians who can indeed 'tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in their eye'. That said, news anchors aren't evil. Neither are they stupid. Hell, the one that turned me onto this clip insists on remaining a journalist! Others could learn from him, but in an industry that values flash over facts, looks over books, intonation over understanding - well, they really don't have to.

Thanks, Frank!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Pursuing Hootie

"With a little love... and some tender

Darius RuckerTHE VOICE took me by surprise. It really shouldn't have; I'd just followed Darius Rucker into a room full of sick kids and musical instruments. But while I was fighting three other photogs for space on stage, someone handed the man most folks think of as "Hootie" a guitar. That's when the jukebox started. Except it wasn't a jukebox. It was the unassuming dude who'd just finished fishing with the kids at Victory Junction. You remember Victory Junction; that bucolic swath of Randolph County Kyle and Patty Petty turned into an oasis for chronically ill children. I'd barely made it through the gates when a certain ex-coworker whisked me away on a golf cart. "You've just about missed the fishing, but you're in time for the jam session." Nodding, I'd told my host how I'd gotten tied up at an earlier shoot, a (shoulda been) simple interview session complicated by multiple microphones. But before I could fully relate the frustration of flipping switches under duress, we pulled up outside the camp's Silver Theater and the hunt was on.

"We'll walk upon the water, We'll rise above this mess..."

Actually there wasn't much 'hunt' to it. My quarry, an affable enough chap I used to watch perform at college bars up and down the Carolinas, walked right past my golf cart. Flanked by both Pettys and trailed by camp staffers and no less than three cameramen, Darius and his family were in the middle of The Grand Tour. Smelling blood, I followed the small coterie into the theater, knowing I had some serious catch-up to play if I was gonna match Hofbauer shot for shot. Steve Hofbauer, a smiley, hulking photog from Channel 2 I see an awful lot of these days was on the same mission as I and, judging from the sweat on the back of his neck, he'd been trailing Hootie for a good ten minutes or so. That's an eternity in terms of time on tape and knowing Hof was on target put more than a little more pep in my step. Thus, I wasted no time in the lobby, plunging instead into the pitch black theater, where a stage full of kids suffering from Spinal Bifida waited with tambourines and smiles. Rucker's face lit up at the sight and as he glad handed his way on stage, Hof, Austin, George and I ALL jockeyed for the best lens position. Doubling back through heavy curtains, I managed to worm my way in front of the guest of honor as he took a seat and greeted his back-up band for the day. I turned away for a ten second shot of a particularly cute camper when Darius turned into that guy on the radio again.

"With a little peace ... and some har-mony..."

Damn, that dude can sing. Three syllables into 'Hold My Hand', I was rendered agog by the soothing gravel of his voice. I'd heard it plenty of times before, most often with a beer in hand and a mullet down the back of my neck. Back in the day, Hootie and the Blowfish were mainstays on the Southeastern college bar circuit. Long before they conquered the world with Cracked Rear View, they charmed the pants off many a sorority chick with their infectious singalongs. I remember seeing them play dives in Raleigh, Greenville and Columbia, not because I was one of their backwards cap wearing fraternity fanboys, but because they were ALWAYS playing somewhere close. That, of course, was twenty years ago. These days, the Blowfish are suckin' seawater, but Rucker's reinvented himself as, of all things, a successful country artist. But none of that mattered to the kids at Victory Junction. They were glad to have a musician in their midst - even if they weren't precisely sure why four TV cameras were hanging on his every utterance. As for me, I wanted to put down my camera, lift up a lighter and sway back and forth, but with a deadline in the distance and sweat dripping down my viewfinder, I feathered the focus and tried to concentrate.

"We'll take the world together..."

After a good thirty second tight shot of Rucker's hands on the guitar neck, I contorted my body and started framing up his audience. A wide shot of the kids, many in costume - a tight shot of child struggling to keep the beat with a maraca someone handed him, a medium shot of Patty and Kyle Petty beaming. I too was beaming a little, congratulating myself for bum-rushing the photo op at the last minute and still ending up at center-square. Hof was there too, crouched down beside me with a face full of eye-cup. Shifting my weight a little , I turned back to Hootie -I mean Darius - and glanced at the reassuringly red RECORD light in the corner of my screen. That's when I noticed something tickling the back of my leg. At first I assumed it was the heavy stage curtain, but after a little mental math, I realized it was my headphones dangling low from the back of the fancycam currently digging a rut in my shoulder. Hmmm, I thought, those should be wrapped around my ears, not my ankles. Somewhere deep inside my skull, rusty synapses began to fire and with a jerk, I zeroed in on the bottom of the one inch screen taking up my view. There, in what should have been a dancing display of green and red light, my audio meter sat shrouded in dark, taunting silence.

"We'll take em by the h-a-a-nd..."

'SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL!' I almost shouted as I began clawing at the side of my camera. I didn't have to look to see what the problem was; earlier I'd reconfigured my microphone inputs to accomodate a couple of talking heads. Forgetting to set them back, I'd hightailed it to my next shoot in sweet ignorant bliss. Only when I found myself inches away from a top selling artist as he gave an impromptu concert for a grateful audience did I notice I WAS RECORDING SILENCE! AAAAAUUUURRRRGGGHHHHH! Backing up a bit, I tilted the axe on my shoulder, flipped open a panel, found the right switch and jammed it home. Suddenly, my audio meter readout began flashing, letting me know that only now had my camera decided to record sound. Sinking deep into my viewfinder, I centered up on Hootie, Darius, whatever and stayed on him as he inspired all who heard with a song you didn't realize you knew so well. As he sang, I prayed nobody took notice of my little spasm, I prayed that Hof's leg were cramping just as badly as mine and most of all I prayed that the guy sitting across from me would please keep singing! Well, he did and by the end of the song, I had enough of it on camera (and microphone) to fuel the epic already forming in my head.

"'Cause I've got a hand for y-o-u..."

In the end, it didn't really matter - but if you've ever gained access to a pivotal moment only to shit the bed when it mattered most, you know the feeling running down my leg as I realized I'd invariably muted Hootie. Later, Hof and I interviewed Darius, who proved to be the same solid cat I remember tearing through old Zeppelin tunes at The Attic all those years ago. Though I didn't mention how close I'd come to requesting an encore earlier, we did chat about what a shame it was that The Attic - a Greenville institution we both thought would live forever - no longer stood. I probably saw him and the Blowfish there a half dozen times and while those sets were always drenched in alcohol, none were as intoxicating as the unplugged performance he delivered to those sick kids and sweaty cameramen earlier.

Once I turned on my microphone, that is.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Derision and the Lens

Sling THIS.An otherwise content photog will openly diss the validity of his sticks. He'll question his tripod's very stripes; cursing the three-legged beast for not walking under its own power. Your garden variety shooter won't think twice about casting aspersions on his company-provided ride. He'll point to the peeling logos on the door and the cheeseburger growing under the driver's seat as indisputable proof his news car's a hoopty. That same photojournalist will lament the dents in his light-kit's case. He'll pop the lid, gander at the broken bulbs inside and ask how any self-respecting glass-handler can work with gear used in the production of Birth of a Nation. Yes, though most of us who shoot news for a living do so with other people's property, we're quick to highlight whatever the hell we can find wrong with it. There's only one exception...

We will NOT denigrate the lens.

Why that is I don't rightly know, but I suspect it has something to do with the camera's proximity to our noggins. Walk around with a fancycam covering half your face for very long and you tend not to turn the other cheek. After all, any videocamera that will power up, white balance and record is all a man (or woman) needs to bring back a picture. In theory, at least. Truth is, even if said shot looks likes a dirty fishbowl, we as a breed are reluctant to trash-talk our glass. Panasonic, JVC, a boned-up Sony; no matter the veracity of our glass, we tend to give those magic machines on our shoulders get a pass. Our lenses' abilities are strangely sacrosanct. To call them into question is to ridicule the very eyesight of the person squinting through that logoed tube. It's been that way since minicams the size of Buicks roamed the Earth.

Me - I love my Sony XDCam, from its pockmarked, hollow cheekbones to its to its three batteries a day habit. Will I still feel the same way about my rig when it fits inside my teenage daughter's iPod sleeve? Will it endear the same warm feelings when it more closely resembles my garage door opener? Hard to tell, but I'm pretty sure it will still be easier to use than that unholy live truck they stuck me with. Damn thing smells like a urinal and drives like one too! Why just the other day I was coming off the interstate and almost got the thing on up on two wheels. I'm tellin' ya it's a first class piece of $#!&@*$%!...